Radical Temperance: Conference General Report

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Annemarie McAllister, Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Central Lancashire, and Pam Lock, a doctoral candidate and the GW4 Developing People Officer at the University of Bristol. They organized a conference on alcohol called Radical Temperance: Social Change and Drink, from Teetotalism to Dry January, held at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England, from June 28-29, 2018. This is their general report, with more posts to come over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

The signing of the teetotal pledge on 1 September 1832 in Preston by a group of seven men, including the social reformer Joseph Livesey, was a pivotal moment in the history of the temperance movement in Britain. Preston was thus an obvious home for the first-ever conference to bring together historians, social scientists, and third sector groups concerned about support for alcohol-free lifestyles today.  The underpinning rationale for “Radical Temperance: Social change and drink, from teetotalism to dry January,” (28th-29th June, 2018), was that, just as the total abstinence movement had originally sprung from the desire of working people for radical improvement of individual lives and of society, in the twenty-first century we are once again seeing living alcohol-free as a radical, counter-cultural choice.  This had been a project in the making for over two years, the dream of Preston academic Dr Annemarie McAllister, Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), enthusiastically supported by Pam Lock, University of Bristol. At times, drawing such a varied range of delegates together did seem as impossible as the scenario of Field of Dreams (1989, P.A. Robinson). Repetition of “If we build it, they will come,” became a mantra, but to ensure that the event did succeed, considerable, real, support was provided by a team of colleagues and grants from the ADHS and Alcohol Research UK.

A diverse group of nearly sixty academics, graduate students and third-sector delegates arrived from the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, France, Denmark, Ireland and around the UK to share research and experiences, discover connections, and explore the history and legacy of the temperance movement. The conference bags included refillable eco-friendly water bottles and snap-open fans, necessary during the hottest weather Preston had experienced for many years. The latter prompted our favourite joke of the conference from drink-studies regular, Phil Mellows who began his talk on the Newcastle project by declaring: “Nice to see so many fans in the audience.”  

Professor Scott Martin from Bowling Green State University, Ohio, opened the first day of the conference with a lively keynote address looking at the role of the U.S. Civil War in initiating interest in temperance and alcohol reform. The subsequent panels which ran throughout the day reinforced the links between temperance past and present, and the international focus, covering a wide and fascinating range of topics from moderation and social change in the 19th and 20th centuries, to sober options and support groups in society today. On a lighter note, delegates played their own version of the knockout World [Soccer] Cup at breaks and lunchtimes, voting for the most impressive temperance whiskers (taken from the portraits in Winskill’s The Temperance Movement and its Workers (4 vols., 1891-2)).

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The end of the first day’s round of the Temperance Whiskers Knockout

In the final session of the day, Director of Research and Policy Development at Alcohol Research UK, Dr. James Nicholls, chaired a fascinating roundtable discussion which focused on abstinence in modern society. Representatives from a variety of organizations and charities including Recovery Connections, Hope UK, Club Soda, the White Ribbon Association and Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems began by outlining the aims of their individual groups and how they each address alcohol abuse-related issues in the UK. Further discussion stimulated an interesting dialogue between the groups on the varying approaches they adopt, ranging from moderation and ‘mindful drinking’ to total abstinence, and the rationale for these strategies.

To close our first day, conference delegates enjoyed participating in either a “Temperance History Trail” or “Historic Pubs of Preston” tour despite the heat before re-assembling for a Temperance Magic Lantern Show given by “Professor” Andrew Gill, re-creating a show with authentic material from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In keeping with the temperance theme, the first day ended with a “Dry Bar” reception, generously supported by Club Soda and the Temperance Spirit Company, which showcased the wide selection of alcohol-free beer, wine and spirits now available in the UK.

Day two of the conference opened with a particularly relevant and insightful keynote from Professor Betsy Thom of Middlesex University, entitled “Temperance Today: A New Story?” This paper explored how far evidence-supported popular beliefs about the changing patterns of alcohol consumption and considered reasons for its decline in recent years to establish whether the concept of temperance can be said to still exist in contemporary Britain. The lively panels which followed once again covered a range of subjects, past and present, from the historic interactions between temperance and politics, to the women’s temperance movement. It was particularly interesting to combine these historical presentations with speakers from contemporary third-sector groups. Representatives from the third-sector ranged from those working to support clients with alcohol-related issues, such as Recovery Connections, to groups working in the field such as the White Ribbon Association and Hope UK, which have over a hundred years of history behind them, talking about how they have adapted their approach.

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Representatives from the Recovery Connections programme, from US and UK

Another association which UCLan has with the temperance movement is its excellent Livesey Collection, based on the surviving archive of the British Temperance League and named in honour of Preston’s famous teetotal pioneer, Joseph Livesey. The librarian Bob Frost’s talk on the Collection whetted delegates’ appetite for the tour he ran to enable participants to explore an exhibition showing off some of the collection’s holdings. This archive, which can claim to be the main resource for the history of the temperance movement in the UK, has recently been re-housed and visitors were impressed by the significance and range of the material – George Cruikshank’s original signed pledge was on display having just been discovered, during the re-shelving work for the exhibition (to much excitement from our lead, Annemarie).  For those not lucky enough to visit during this conference, visits can be arranged through facultylibrarians@uclan.ac.uk 

As the conference came to a close with a final roundtable discussion, notions of continuity and change, as well as the radicalism of the conference’s title, emerged as major themes. As well as making many new cross-disciplinary and cross-sector links which we hope will bear fruit, the conference highlighted exciting links between temperance in both a historic and modern-day context, drawing on the expertise of researchers as well as practitioners working in the field. We exchanged stories, references, approaches, and made plans for future work, as well as new friends. And we hope to share some of the papers in a future special edition of SHAD. These two days effectively demonstrated that far from being a movement consigned to history, temperance also continues to have considerable relevance in contemporary society.

 

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One Comment

  1. “…just as the total abstinence movement had originally sprung from the desire of working people for radical improvement of individual lives and of society, in the twenty-first century we are once again seeing living alcohol-free as a radical, counter-cultural choice.”

    If the above quote describes what is happening in the US, for instance, I don’t understand how the statistics at the following link could be true:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/09/25/think-you-drink-a-lot-this-chart-will-tell-you/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0881025725c4

    Teetotal adults and those who drink less than one drink a month are shown to be half of all adults in the US.

    Is it more likely the real “counter-cultural” choice is the ten percentile who drink more than ten drinks per day every day on average? This huge population of tens of millions of drunkards consume two thirds of all the alcohol sold in the US. (Whether this constitutes an epidemic is another useful question.)

    In the US, have not teetotalers always been about 1/3 of the adult population?

    To take it a little further, almost every time I have discussed peoples’ pledging of total abstinence with alcohol historians they smilingly pidgeon-hole the act as a societally minor religious/spiritual act.

    Could it be hypothesized that successfully pledging unconditional total permanent abstinence is very common within society and always has been? In doing so, people do not usually report in any way for scientists to incrementally count that change of drinking status. And there is no service industry associated with doing so.

    On the other hand, the multifarious service ‘industries’ associated with denying competency to make the unconditional pledge “I will never drink again”, has a very checkered centuries old history.

    Could it also be hypothesized that today the addiction treatment industry and its associated recovery group movement are actually a small minority of addicted people seeking (and then endlessly struggling with) not drinking because of the huge ongoing personal investments involved in “not doing something” that pledging adults achieve at no cost?

    A final hypothesis could be that the ultimate driver of Levine’s “Discovery of Addiction” is actually unrepentant drunkards’ “Discovery of Excuses”. Towns and then cities were finally able to keep drunkards alive with institutional assistance, so they could live for another day.

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